Seven or eight year old Jens woke up somewhat earlier than usual that morning. His parents and brother were still asleep so he trundled into the dining room and found his grandfather eating breakfast. Likely his second breakfast, considering it was after 7AM. Jens plunked himself at the oblong table and filled his bowl with plain Kellogg’s cornflakes and looked around for the milk. But there wasn’t any.
A closer inspection of grandpa’s bowl showed that the cornflakes were not floating in milk but in orange juice. Not to be outdone, Jens went to the fridge, found the orange juice and nonchalantly poured it in, as though that were a normal thing to do. His grandfather, never one to be particularly talkative, didn’t say much.
Jens took his first bite and was pleasantly surprised: the citrus tang of the orange juice brought life to the corn, while the crunch of the flakes was as satisfying as ever.
It was many years before Jens would think about this moment again; many years of eating cereal with milk.
One of the skills some of my AP Lit students struggle with the most not giving in to their first reactions, impressions, and judgments of a text. We all of us bring our own interpretive frameworks to a text, whether we are aware of that or not. The gut-level reaction to scenes of violence, the fierce grin when something fitting happens, the desire to throttle a character making a dumb choice. Beyond that, our worldview can also blind us to what an author is attempting to say, to another way of looking at an issue, and to other ways of living life.
Too many of us assume that the life we’ve had, the events we’ve experienced, the societies we’ve lived in are the normal standard by which to measure all others. And the more entrenched we become, the harder it is to see others as potentially equally valid. We can’t give a fair evaluation until we remove some of our own expectations.
I use the metaphor of lenses quite a bit in my classroom. Our worldview is a lens—and it can be a good lens. We need it to make sense of the world, to interpret what happens around us. We also have a hand in shaping that lens, when we are intentional about it. We can also temporarily add lenses to our view that allow for a particular focus on one aspect of a thing. And other times, we must remove our own, innermost lenses to actually experience something for what it is.
An example of this often shows up when reading somewhat older texts and a character ends up getting married to their first cousin. Students frequently cannot see beyond their initial revulsion at the idea, likely picturing their own cousins and themselves. But within the context of Victorian England and other parts of Europe at the time, it was not uncommon, especially among the upper class or middle class. Similarly, the age-gaps between the men and women getting married often receive fairly scathing comments from my students.
But by the time we’ve distanced ourselves a bit, talked about the reasons and causes, removed ourselves from our immediate context and instead situated our mindsets into a Victorian one, it seems less outlandish. That doesn’t mean we can’t still look critically at the marital expectations of the time, but we’re doing it honestly, rather than only from our own preconceptions sitting here in the 21st century.
A chapter of a book we read in AP Lit discusses the need for readers to not just read with their own eyes. This works similarly to how I use lenses. To be good readers, we must first attempt to remove our own lenses and view a text for what it is, before we bring in our interpretive skills. It is too easy, especially when a text was written in another time period, or is from another culture, to pass judgment without considering the unique context.
So a few weeks ago, I had my students try cornflakes with orange juice. This is the second time I’ve attempted this illustration and both times it went really well.
After discussing the need to distance ourselves from our preconceptions, I try to set the stage. I place cornflakes within the context that brought them into existence: an easy, store-able, filling breakfast that working-class people could eat in a hurry. The ready presence of various grains helped, and the crunchiness of corn when toasted made for a very versatile breakfast. We talk about dairy products, how the industrial revolution brought more and more milk cows into the cities (resulting in a need for pasteurization to keep the milk clean) and how we don’t actually need dairy to survive—in fact, there are numerous places in the world were a large majority of inhabitants are lactose intolerant. We drink milk because we like it, because it is used in awesome products like cheese and ice cream, but it’s not strictly nutritionally necessary.
I ask students why we put milk in cereal (named after Ceres, the Roman goddess of grains and agriculture). Couldn’t we use other fluids to soften that crunchiness up? Water? Cocoa? Juice? What difference does it make whether I use a fluid squeezed out of a citrus fruit as opposed to one squeezed out of a bovine udder?
By the time we actually get around to trying cornflakes with orange juice, there’s quite a hullaballoo in the classroom. A few are excited, some have very skeptical looks, while others can’t shake their repulsed expression. One or two remain silent, stoically approaching the ordeal ahead. I don’t require that anyone try it unless they want to, though most students do eventually give it a go.
Their reactions run a pretty wide gamut. Some try half a bite and can’t get over the fact that it’s not how they’re used to eating cereal. Some don’t like cereal or orange juice to begin with, so that usually doesn’t go very far. And most give it an honest attempt, set aside their lenses as best they can and try to appreciate the flavor and texture for what it is. Some don’t mind it, some prefer it another way, one or two really just dislike it, and a few absolutely love it.
But it’s not until they can set aside their expectations of what cereal is that they can give it an honest try and evaluate it on its merits, rather than on their preconceptions.
And cornflakes are fairly uncontroversial. Yet we struggle to give even that a fair trial. How much harder it is to fairly evaluate our deeply held beliefs in other areas of our lives. And yet, that is how we should read literature. That doesn’t mean we don’t bring in our worldview, our interpretive lenses at a later point, but that should only be after we have considered the text within its context and for what it is. Only then can we say we’ve given it an intellectually fair reading. We might still not like it, might still find it problematic, but we didn’t let our own preconceptions get the better of us. And occasionally, we discover a new favorite way to eat cornflakes.